Tesla moves ahead from Google in race to build self-driving cars

People walk out of a Tesla motor company dealership in the Dadeland Mall on June 6, 2013 in Miami.

Story highlights

  • Tesla to overtake Google in creating self driving cars within three years
  • Google struggles to find carmaker partners to bring technology to fruition
  • Japanese carmaker, Nissan announced release of a fully autonomous car by 2020
  • Tesla CEO: "My opinion is it's a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars"

Robot cars that can take over most of the driving from their human handlers will be ready for the road within three years, according to Elon Musk, the US electric cars and space entrepreneur whose bold predictions have come to embody an ambitious new era in tech industry thinking.

Tesla Motors, which startled traditional automotive giants such as General Motors and Renault-Nissan with its electric cars, is now joining the race to build cars that can drive themselves, Mr Musk, the chief executive, said.

The attempt to build a driverless car would see Tesla overtake Google, which three years ago fired the starting gun in this technological race but has since struggled to find a partner to build the cars.

It also marks the latest attempt by Mr Musk to gain a technological jump on the rest of the industry after his company's luxury sedan, the Model S, became the first profitable electric vehicle this year.

"We should be able to do 90 per cent of miles driven within three years," he said. Mr Musk would not reveal further details of Tesla's autonomy project, but said it was "internal development" rather than technology being supplied by another company. "It's not speculation," he said.

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The company is currently advertising a new job for an engineer "responsible for developing vehicle-level decision-making and lateral and longitudinal control strategies for Tesla's effort to pioneer fully automated driving" on its website.

A number of companies including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Continental have experimented with self-driving car technology.

Japanese carmaker Nissan said last month that it would release a fully autonomous car by 2020, though Mr Musk said he believed that the idea of creating a car that would control itself under all circumstances was too ambitious.

"My opinion is it's a bridge too far to go to fully autonomous cars," Mr Musk said in an interview with the Financial Times. "It's incredibly hard to get the last few per cent."

He said, however, that Tesla was working on a plan that would allow drivers to turn on a form of "auto-pilot" in most situations that would allow the vehicle to take over control.

Tesla, which expects to sell 21,000 of its Model S sedans this year, has seen excitement over its industry-leading battery technology and plans to build a more mass-market electric car send its share price up more than 400 per cent so far in 2013, to a market capitalisation of more than $20bn.

Tesla, formed in 2003, had been expected to be among the companies to consider a tie-up with Google to use the search company's autonomous driving technology.

Mr Musk's rejection of the idea of a fully autonomous car, however, was the latest sign that Google has had trouble finding partners among established carmakers to bring its technology to the road.

One person familiar with Google's efforts said carmakers had been hesitant about adopting the Google technology because of the potential liabilities from accidents involving robot cars. Google would not comment.